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Reviewed by:
  • Shadow Woman: The Extraordinary Career of Pauline Benton by Grant Hayter-Menzies
  • Kathy Foley
SHADOW WOMAN: THE EXTRAORDINARY CAREER OF PAULINE BENTON. By Grant Hayter-Menzies. Montreal: McGill University Press, 2013. 244 pp. $29.95

This book places the life of Pauline Benton (1898–1974), who founded the American company Red Gate Players, which performed Chinese shadow puppetry (piyingxi), within a larger history of Chinese-American interface from the 1920s to the 1970s. This text shows significant research on the part of the author in tracking down and interpreting the history of a rather reclusive woman. Pauline’s sojourns in China were relatively brief. A visit in 1922 to an exhibit mounted by Bethold Laufer at the Field Museum in Chicago exposed Benton to Chinese shadow theatre, and performances seen in her aunt Emma Konstanz’s garden in Beijing, where Konstanz taught at Yenching University, whetted Benton’s enthusiasm for the art. When Benton took over programming at International House in New York in the 1930s, she decided to attempt a show: “Manipulating shadows that belonged to her, moving under her direction; and the people, American people seemed to like them” (p. 40).

Returning to China for a number of months in 1936, Benton studied with Li Tuchen (Lee Tu’o-chen), whose family of Luanzhou-style puppet masters had links to the Ching dynasty court. She traveled to the countryside, commissioned additional figures, and, on her return to New York, founded a group with the help of William Russell (a musician interested in jazz and ethnic [End Page 635] music) and Lee Ruttle (an actor and publicist). Given her relatively brief time in China and limited experience of Chinese language, music, and dance, Benton’s adaptations of piyingxi were not detailed representations of the original works but perhaps as a result well attuned to the American audience.

In the 1930s, as American sympathy for China’s fighting the Japanese invasion grew, Benton’s company toured successfully throughout the United States and even played the Roosevelt White House. The group was impacted as the men went to fight in World War II. It disintegrated in the postwar era, as anticommunist sentiment limited American receptivity to things Chinese. Benton went into retirement, working in a shop in Carmel, California, teaching some small classes at the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco or doing limited performances (encouraged by composer-musician Lou Harrison) at the Ojai Music Festival in the 1970s. Her students and others were left to revive her work, using her puppets after her death.

Hayter-Menzies’s narrative, which stitches together a history of Chinese-American international relations and the work of this American puppeteer, makes interesting reading, but the attention given to the twentieth-century history of China sometimes overpowers the actual woman, who largely lived in the United States with a sojourn in the Philippines and brief visits to China. The author has used extensive human and archival resources, including Jo Humphrey, who founded the Gold Mountain Institute for Traditional Shadow Theatre in the 1970s in New York, and Kuang-Yu Fong and Steven Kaplin, of the now active New York company Chinese Theatre Works. Humphrey restored Benton’s figures in the 1970s and passed them on to Fong and Kaplin’s group.

Hayter-Menzies reconstructs in detail Benton’s life and connections to New York and traces programs and reviews of the group’s work, but West Coast portions of her story and legacy are adumbrated. In the late 1970s, she lived in Carmel and taught workshops. Her students Andrea Ja and Pam Ramsing were active in teaching and performing Chinese shadows in the schools and museums in the Bay region in the 1970s and 1980s, and performing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC. Calvin Tamura trained with Ramsing and Ja and began performing in Honolulu, using figures from the Honolulu Academy of Arts in the 1970s—but such West Coast offshoots are mentioned only in passing, although they might have helped trace a wider circle of her longer-term impact.

The grand narrative of foreigners interfacing with Chinese politics sometimes takes the forefront, and the author’s attempts to make Benton “extraordinary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2109
Print ISSN
0742-5457
Pages
pp. 635-637
Launched on MUSE
2014-09-23
Open Access
No
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